Today I Saw God

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There is Value in Your Silence

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On Saturday, April 14, I had the privilege of joining about a dozen other leaders from Floris United Methodist Church and about two hundred others at Annandale United Methodist Church to participate in the Bishop’s Convocation on Race and Reconciliation. Most of us from Floris came because of our connection to our congregation’s new racial reconciliation initiative, and we anticipated hearing how our bishop and other leaders would lead those gathered to be more effective agents of change and reconciliation in our communities.

It’s not easy getting up to spend a Saturday in church. However, between worship together, a challenging presentation by our keynote speaker Romal Tune and small group training on facilitating difficult conversations, I found myself seriously considering my own race for one of the first times in my life.

As a straight, white, Christian male, thinking about my own identity is not a normal thing for me to do. Most of my life experience has occurred in spaces where most people look like me, speak my language and believe similar things that I do. I have lived a lot of my life in a dominant context, meaning that, not because of any decisions of my own but because of a system from which I benefit, my voice is often heard in conversations and in communities when others’ may not be. For a long time, I bought into the same lie that many white people believe, that I don’t have race or have to deal with race because I’m white.

We centered a lot of our conversation at the Bishop’s Convocation around this phenomenon called white privilege. I know white privilege is a loaded and misunderstood term, but it identifies an important concept in our society which we need to address if we have any hope of real racial reconciliation.

A video by Dr. Robin DiAngelo titled, “Deconstructing White Privilege,opened our conversations on this topic. I encourage you to take about 20 minutes and watch the video to understand this concept more in depth, but in summary, Dr. DiAngelo argues that our conversations around racism in the United States don’t address the core issues.

We usually talk about racism by labeling two groups: bad racists and good people. Racism is reduced to the individual level, and white people in particular prove that they’re not racist by citing how diverse their friends are or arguing that they were raised to love everyone and see everyone as equal. Interpersonal racism is problematic, no doubt about it. But the issues that more significantly undercut our abilities to view one another as equals aren’t about personal choices and behaviors now, but those in the past that have woven racism into the very fabric of our society.

Rather than keep racism within the bounds of interpersonal actions, our working definition of racism focused more on how racism acts as a system of racial prejudice developed and sustained by institutional power. This shift in focus led us to consider our own participation in the racist systems that uphold our society and realize that being white does not mean being without race, but rather being associated with the race deemed most beneficial by the constructors of our society.

As we had these conversations, a phrase from our keynote speaker Romal Tune stuck with me. At one point, he spoke about what white people can do in response, and that deciding to act is really hard. Because of the ways our society has been set up to benefit the white elite, in some sense, any action toward racial and socioeconomic equity requires those in power to give up and share that power. In other words, as Tune said to those of us who were white in the room, “There is value in your silence.”

The moral weight of our work hit me squarely in the face in that moment. Many white people believe that issues of race and racial inequality do not affect them, but to leave this work to our sisters and brothers who have been oppressed based on their race is not a morally neutral act. White people will continue to benefit from our misordered society until it changes, and if we believe racial equity is morally significant, it is our responsibility to work for change and our moral failing to do nothing.

I do not claim this responsibility as an egotistical white man looking to continue fixing the world’s problems with my own solutions. I claim this responsibility at the invitation of my non-white sisters and brothers to join the effort they have maintained their entire lives: working to make sure our society views them as people and as nothing less.It seems like a simple request or, dare I say, one we might all assent to, to view all people as people and nothing less. But the reason I spent a Saturday in church, the reason I’m committing to this racial reconciliation work at Floris, is that request still needs to be made.

My white sisters and brothers, we cannot put the burden of equality on those who have borne the burden of oppression for far too long. Be informed. Be empathetic. Be willing to say that you’re wrong. Be willing to apologize. Be willing to listen and learn. As Tune told us, our past is not our future, but the past has dramatically shaped our present. I invite you to join the work of our racial reconciliation initiative to help shape our future, so you too can discover the value in others that far outweighs the value of our silence

The Microclimate of Community

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It was such a joy to share the sermon at Floris UMC this Sunday that I wanted to share an additional story that didn't quite make the cut. For those of you who weren't with us (or need help remembering), the main point came from John 13:31-35, in which Jesus told his disciples about a new commandment to love one another as a distinctive marker of Christian community. The disciples had a role to play in developing the climate in which they would continue to exist, grow and thrive in Christ. And, as we know, climate is crucial for things to grow.

The story I want to share further illustrates the importance of climate. In May 2007, my family faced a difficult transition. My parents had to leave Western New York (which has been their home for their entire lives) for my dad's new job in North Carolina. As a teenager at the time, I found opportunities to connect with new people through school, church, etc. But we all faced some culture shock when we 'Yankees' moved to North Carolina. The climate, both cultural and physical, was challenging in so many ways, especially as we experienced heat and humidity like we had never known before. That summer was one of the hottest on record, and our AC unit (and new love) in our home simply couldn't handle it. We had never hador needed to haveair conditioning in our house before. But pretty soon after our move, we had to make a call to a repair company.

My mom and I were both home during the day when the repairman came. And let's just say we had a hard time communicating. My mom (who had worked professional jobs in Western New York her whole life) and the repairman (who, to my memory, had been born and raised in rural North Carolina) simply couldn't understand each other. The main cooling unit had rusted through, including a coil in the unit. As the repairman tried to tell my mom that he had to order a new coil (pronounced "coal") for the unit, my mom looked back in disbelief, wondering why there was coal in the unit to begin with.

Luckily, I was able to finish the conversation with the repairman. As he left, I looked back at my mom expecting to laugh about the whole ordeal. But our joy rather quickly turned to sadness. The exchange plainly reminded us of how disconnected we felt, even in our own home. Just as a home with a broken AC unit in July can surround us with sweltering heat and humidity, disconnectedness and brokenness can surround us with anxiety and sadness. In more ways than one, our climate wasn't necessarily conducive to our growth.

Don't discount how your environment affects your life and don't discount how you can contribute to your own environment. Perhaps you can be a climate changer for good, creating spaces at church, work or wherever you are that are conducive to your own growth and the growth of those around you.

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Why are You a Methodist, Anyways?

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If you're like me, you might scratch your head when you consider just how many Christian denominations exist. Sure, we might anticipate religious diversity throughout the world, but who could have anticipated such diversity within Christianity itself? Think about how many churches you pass on your way to work, or better yet, how many churches you pass on your way to wherever you worship on any given week. How can we explain such a wide array of expressions of a supposedly unified faith?

In my life, different circumstances have led me to meaningfully experience several Christian denominations. I grew up in the Wesleyan Church, began to own my faith in a Southern Baptist congregation, attended a college with an Anabaptist heritage and, while in college, connected with the Presbyterian Church in America, Assemblies of God, the Brethren in Christ and the Church of Uganda (with Anglican influence). Each of these experiences has shaped me and my faith in important ways, and I can appreciate various elements of each denomination listed above. As I was finishing college, however, I realized that my lifelong tour of Evangelical Protestantism had left me disconnected from a church I could call my home. I began searching for a place where I not only felt welcomed, but also where I could continue to dive deeper into God's love and grace in meaningful community. It did not take me long to find a place to belong in the United Methodist Church (UMC).

Before I learned much about what it meant to be United Methodist, two things in particular drew me into the Methodist connection. First, hearing of John and Charles Wesley and the core teachings of Methodist doctrine reminded me of language with which I was already familiar, having grown up in the Wesleyan Church. Rather than learning new vocabulary, I gained deeper insight and received more meaning from vocabulary that I already used (some of which I will discuss further below). Second, and most impressive to me, I appreciated the UMC's openness to modern thought and scholarship. Too often in my experiences, churches, pastors and many Christians I knew saw the extent of their interaction with the world as simply resisting the world's evils and waiting for God to fix everything in judgment. While the UMC still has a powerful prophetic witness against evil and injustice in the world, it also engages culture in a meaningful way, asking how our faith informs our interactions with science, sociology, biblical scholarship or other areas, rather than insisting our faith has nothing to learn from these fields to which countless women and men devote their lives with excellence.

But while these characteristics the UMC's Wesleyan heritage and openness to the modern world initially attracted me to the denomination, there was something deeper, something woven throughout the church's very existence that resonated not only with my mind, but also with my very soul. Methodists have a very unique way of describing their experiences and relationship with God, a phrase that John Wesley often called the "way of salvation." Unlike some other expressions of Christian faith, the Methodist expression emphasizes that one's salvation is not completed in a moment, but over a lifetime. Methodism tells a story, God's story, that is being written through all of history in which God invites us to participate. The story of our salvation extends far before and long after our conscious decision to enter into relationship with God. Something far bigger is going on, and that something is God!

The way of salvation is a compelling narrative that resonates with the human experience, allowing all people to acknowledge brokenness in their life, community and world and see how God's work in the past, present and future is making all things new. No matter where you are, where you've been, or what you've experienced in your life, God invites all into restorative fellowship with God's self, offering healing to all our brokenness and ailments, even those we didn't realize we had. Perhaps this theology will be as compelling to you as it was to me as you think about your life and your need for a place to belong.

God's preemptive action to reach out in love and grace lies at the heart of Wesley's way of salvation. When God shows us grace when we do not ask for it or realize our need for it, we label it prevenient grace, or grace that precedes us. Prevenient grace is God's gift to all people, allowing us to not only experience God's blessings without realizing their source, but also to use our own volition to seek and find God. We need grace to find God because our brokenness and self-centeredness prevents us from finding God on our own. This idea that all humans need healing from the power of sin remains consistent with traditional Christian teachings, and is central to the Methodist way of salvation. Amidst humanity's brokenness, God has intervened to allow all people to find new life in God.

Charles Wesley reminds us of this theme in his hymn, "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,"[1] where he writes:

"Come, sinners, to the gospel feast
Let every soul be Jesus' guest.
Ye need not one be left behind
For God hath bid all humankind.

Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now."

Though the language of "sinners" finds less common usage in our era, Wesley highlights these themes: God invites all people into relationship, and this invitation is not earned but extended freely. In a similar fashion, John Wesley calls our first encounters with God "the first dawning of grace in the soul."[2] This dawning for some comes as early as baptism, when even as infants, entirely dependent on others for our very life, God freely extends an invitation into the divine community and the local church even before we have any awareness of that sort of invitation. The act of baptism serves as one of the church's two sacraments, or ways that we tangibly receive and celebrate God's transforming grace. According to the Twenty-five Articles of Religion, a statement of core Methodist doctrine published at the onset of Methodism's distinct presence in the United States in 1784, baptism is the first sign of "the new life" offered by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.[3] The beginning stages of Wesley's way of salvation emphasize that God is actively seeking us, even when we cannot or do not actively seek God.

Once we accept God's preemptive extension of grace, God pours out more in order that we can be freed from the guilt of our sin and begin living a life devoted to and restored to God. Many Christians place this moment of "conversion" at the pinnacle of one's experience with God; once you have been "saved," you will escape damnation and live forever with God in heaven after your death. Such an overemphasis on a single moment of salvation is absent from Methodist theology, for our experience of grace as our sins are forgiven is not the culmination of our journey with God, but the beginning. Charles Wesley describes this beginning in "How Can We Sinners Know?"[4]:

We who in Christ believe that he for us hath died,
We all his unknown peace receive and feel his blood applied.

Our nature's turned, our mind transformed in all its powers,
And both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.

For Charles Wesley, justification implies a beginning, a "turning" that makes humans right with God and sets them on the course of salvation. John Wesley articulates a similar understanding; as he reflects on the promise of God offered in 1 John 1:9, he identifies a singular moment of justification as the beginning of a salvation journey:

Now it is evident, the Apostle [John] here also speaks of a deliverance wrought in this world. For he saith not, the blood of Christ will cleanse at the hour of deathbut, it "cleanseth," at the time present, "us," living Christians, "from all sin". Neither let any sinner against his own soul say, that this relates to justification only, or the cleansing us from the guilt of sin. First, because this is confounding together what the Apostle clearly distinguishes, who mentions first, to forgive us our sins, and then to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.[5]

The journey with God that begins with justification allows a person's entire life to potentially be transformed by the Holy Spirit. This lifelong process works on multiple levels. On one hand, God works to form the inner self of each person in relationship with God, cultivating right attitudes and behaviors, or personal holiness. On the other hand, Wesley extended this holiness beyond internal spirituality to how one interacts with the world. Without a meaningful social holiness, Wesley would question the authenticity of one's salvation. This emphasis fueled the creation of general rules for gatherings of Methodists during the Wesley brothers' time, generally categorized as avoiding evil, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God.[6]

The reality and possibility of personal holiness is best expressed in the Wesleyan theology of total sanctification, or the possibility of having love of God and neighbor perfected in a person in this lifetime. This theology affirms the power of God's grace over all evil in the world, including that which so directly affects our lives. Charles Wesley expresses this anticipation in the hymn, "O Come and Dwell in Me,"[7]

Hasten the joyful day which shall my sins consume,
When all things shall be done away and all things new become.

The journey of salvation is in fact a journey, but it is also key to remember that our journey to God is not necessarily linear. Circumstances arise in our lives that threaten the bond of peace established with God in our lives, and we can far too easily wander from the way God has intended us to live. While we often depict prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace as different gifts offered on a linear journey with and to God, we actually experience the same grace in different ways depending on where we are in life. This theme emerges in one of John Wesley's sermons on the "Means of Grace," or, Wesley says, "the ordinary channels whereby [God] might convey to [people] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace."[8] God's grace, accepted and entered into, restores us to God's "[favor] and image," by God's "free gracenot by any power, wisdom, or strength, which is in [us], or in any other creature; but merely through the grace or power of the Holy Ghost, which worketh all in all."[9]

That's really what's at the core of this Methodist experience: God meeting us where we are and always having a place for us to go and grow. I know I'm still new to this denomination and my local congregation, but the idea that God wants to write our story into God's story simply captivates me. No matter where you are, God has something for you: grace. I hope that grace pours out abundantly in your life today, and may God hasten the joyful day when all sin shall be done away and all new things become!

[1] United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) 339.

[2] John Wesley, "The Scripture Way of Salvation," in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 173-179.

[3] Article of Religion 17, in Ted A. Campbell, Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials, Rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011), 120.

[4] UMH 372.

[5] John Wesley, "Christian Perfection," in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 88-89.

[6] John and Charles Wesley, "The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies in London, Bristol, Kingswood, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, etc." in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 95-100.

[7] UMH 388.

[8] John Wesley, "The Means of Grace," in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 105.

[9] Ibid., 108-109.

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Creativity Crisis

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I'm still relatively new to Northern Virginia, but in my year of living here, one thing stands out far more than the horrific traffic, the well-educated population and even some of the social and political crises we face on a regular basis. Our busyness requires so much attention for the things we have to do that we have squelched our creative capacities for thinking about the people and communities we could become. Of course, bright lights of imagination and innovation pop up around us all the time. But I think we can all identify with the rut that work days and weeks can become.

In this rut, we rush past our neighbors (if we even know their names to begin with) to get to our cars, become our worst selves as our rage boils over in traffic, work with only the day's end in mind, endure more traffic and come home to more tasks, crises or sheer exhaustion. Our tasks dictate our lives beyond a reasonable measure of responsibility. Do we ever ask, "Does it have to be this way?"

Yes, work is good and necessary. And yes, not everyone has the privilege of asking these kinds of questions. But no matter your career or professional trajectory, Jesus offers something far more meaningful than a monotonous daily grind.

You don't have to quit, retire or get fired to experience the new life Jesus offers. In fact, Jesus offers us the Holy Spirit, whom we can invite into every moment of our lives as God's constant, loving presence. This gift isn't confined to your particular worship community on a given day, but can in fact fuel your imagination for a new routine.

Imagine what could happen if we took Jesus' call to love our neighbors seriously, beginning with those who live right next door. Imagine what could happen if our commutes turned into opportunities to (safely and hands-free) call friends or partners in faith to encourage and stay connected to one another. Imagine what could happen if we saw our co-workers as fellow human beings who experience joy, sorrow, beauty and pain just like we do. Imagine what could happen if home became a rejuvenating place, even as you check items off your to-do list.

My generalizations cannot possibly give you solutions to breaking out of your own rut, but right now, take five minutes and ask that question: "Does it have to be this way?" Like we encourage recent college graduates in Wesley Fellows, you do not have to join a convent or work at a church to take Jesus' call to discipleship seriously in your life. However, you do need to take time to imagine who you want to be and consider what steps you can take to get there. Don't be afraid to unleash your creativity; this God-given gift, expressed in countless different ways, helps us achieve the unimaginable.

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The Love o' the Irish

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It's a day that means so much more than alcohol, green rivers and Irish culture. In fact, St. Patrick's Day is, at its core, a day about restoration, which is exactly what we are talking about at Floris UMC this Lent in our sermon series, "Restored." Patrick asked questions about living a restored life in community with others, questions so central to our practice of Christian faith.

If you have never heard anything about who St. Patrick was or what he did, I encourage you to watch this short video featured in an episode of VeggieTales. It's a fun, informative video for the whole family! In short, Patrick grew up in England, was captured as a slave and taken to Ireland, escaped home to England and received a call from God to minister back in Ireland. Patrick helped change the trajectory of an entire people, which explains his veneration in Irish cultural memory and Christian history.

The often-untold story of Patrick's life, however, tells exactly how he reached the Irish people and taught them the ways of Jesus. Outlined in detail in George G. Hunter III's "The Celtic Way of Evangelism,"Patrick's method serves as an incredible example for any Christian serving in a cross-cultural context.

Patrick would, initially with a few others, travel to a village and spend his time getting to know the people. He also worked to understand how and why they did things in their context so he could become a genuinely accepted part of any community he entered. He never sought to change a place he visited so it would be more conducive to his brand of Christianity; rather, Patrick learned about a place so he could best understand how Christianity could speak to people there.

As Patrick and his posse passed through different places, they focused their time on creating meaningful community experiences. They shared meals together and spent time studying scripture, much like the first Christians did in Acts 2:42-47.

Patrick had a deep devotion to scripture, but his devotion to Christ ran even deeper. In order to welcome people into the communities he shaped, he always emphasized inclusive belonging over a checklist of "correct" beliefs. To Patrick, people always belonged at the table, and he couldn't impose his own expectations on them until they were known and welcomed.

As history tells us, Patrick's method worked exquisitely. But Patrick did not become the superstar pastor of a multisite, nationwide church. Patrick worked to make each community self-sustaining, so even when he had to move on to another village, the young church would continue meeting together, serving one another and caring for the community. Patrick consistently worked himself out of a job as he equipped a new generation of leaders to continue guiding their community toward Christ.

Lent is a holy season, and throughout church history, days on which we venerate saints are holy days. Perhaps St. Patrick's Day has been nothing more for you than a bizarre cultural holiday when people pinch you if you don't wear green. But St. Patrick's Day can be a holy day too.

Lent forces us to be introspective about the ways our sinfulness holds us back from the best that God has for us. Maybe this St. Patrick's Day, we can ask some of the same questions Patrick asked, like, "How do I communicate that all people are welcome in God's church?" "Does my life reflect this gracious hospitality?" and "Is my faith about me, or is it about God?"

Before we believe or behave correctly, we belong. Christ welcomes us to God's table. May we, like Christ and Patrick, extend that same grace to others.

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